Illiteracy in developed countries: ending the taboo

By Nicole Bella, responsible for statistics in the Education for all Global Monitoring Report team. 

The fourth Education for All goal is to improve adult literacy by 50% between 2000 and 2015. Following the International Literacy Day celebrated last September 8th, Nicole Bella writes a blog post on what is hidden behind the literacy statistics in both the developing and developed world.

The International Literacy Day celebrated on September 8th since 1965 reminds us every year of the importance of literacy for individuals, communities and societies and therefore of the necessity to keep our promises. Just as with the general concern for education, literacy is a fundamental human right which everyone should benefit from. It is a right that opens the door to other rights and contributes to individual empowerment and to social, economic and political integration. Literacy is also beneficial in several other ways:

  • To be able to read, write and count is essential for all other forms of learning
  • To be able to read can be vital to live independently in day to day life: deciphering and understanding medical pamphlets, for example, or security instructions are essential for one’s health and security.
  • To be able to read, write and count contribute to an individual’s personal development and allow each person to enjoy their individual freedom and better understand and adapt to a constantly changing digital world.

Undeniably, there already exist commitments to fight against illiteracy at the international, regional and national levels. Even so, hundreds of millions of adults around the world remain illiterate. According to the most recent estimate by the UNESCO Institute for Statistics, the number of illiterate adults in the world has decreased by 12% since the beginning of the 1990s. Despite this change, 775 million adults were still considered illiterate in 2010. Nearly two thirds of these were women.

Illiteracy, solely a concern for developing countries?

An overwhelming majority of illiterate adults in the world live in developing countries (99%). With 287 million illiterate adults, India alone  houses almost 37% of the world’s total. This fact alone has entrenched a strong tenacious belief that illiteracy only concerns the least developed countries or only immigrant populations in developed countries. Indeed, conventional literacy data tend to depict an idyllic situation in developed countries, showing levels of adult literacy reaching 100%. However, more exhaustive national and international surveys show that this is far from the truth.

As the 2012 Education for All Global Monitoring Report to be launched next month shows, there remains considerable numbers of illiterate adults in these countries, including in France, that are still not receiving the necessary attention. The persistence of illiteracy in Europe is also highlighted in a Report by a group of high-level experts within the EU, published last September 6th. According to this report, in Europe, 75 million people do not have the basic skills they need to get by independently in today’s modern world.

Even though the statistics speak for themselves, the topic of illiteracy remains a taboo topic in developed countries where compulsory basic education has been a reality for decades and where mass education has been in place since the 1960s. In these countries, where basic reading, writing and counting skills are meant to be acquired by everyone, illiterate people often feel ashamed, and even are simply stigmatized. Very often,  people affected neither show nor talk about their illiteracy, a reaction that makes it difficult to identify the issue and so to find a solution to the problem.

All developed countries are concerned though to a different extent.

Relatively high levels of illiteracy can be found in Germany, Belgium, Canada, the United States and in the United Kingdom. In France, figures on illiteracy from a national survey by the French Institute of Statistics and Economic Studies, INSEE, in 2000-2005 indicated that 9% of 18-65 year olds were illiterate – more than 3 million people. Illiteracy varies with age and affects the eldest the most. While illiteracy affected 4.5% of 18-25 year olds in France, the rate reached 14% for those aged 56-65 years. In addition to age, levels of illiteracy also vary according to sex, socio economic background, residential areas, migratory status and ethnicity. Certain groups of populations such as those in prison were also more likely to be affected, with the illiteracy rate up to 40% among prisoners.

Even if it is difficult to get an idea of changes in illiteracy in France due to a lack of recent data, the academic difficulties that younger people face today do not bode well and will likely result in illiteracy persisting into their adulthood. The last PISA survey in 2009 indicates that in France, 20% of students aged 15 years have relatively important difficulties in reading and 23% in mathematics. These numbers clearly raises the issue of school failure which is very often the source of illiteracy. In France, despite a small decrease compared to 2007, in 2008, almost 13% of students in CM2 (5th year of primary) did not have basic French language skills; 10% did not have basic skills in mathematics. 

Act now! Illiteracy remains a taboo subject in developed countries like France despite having heavy implications for the millions of people it concerns, for their families as well as for the whole society. It requires urgent action.

In February 2011, the EU Commission created a group of high level experts to make the illiteracy issue more visible in Europe and analyse existing policies. The report emerging from this group is a clear call for action and recommends Europe to ‘raise its aspirations’ and aim for  a functional literacy of all citizens’. Citing examples of initiatives and literacy programs having an impact in Europe, the report shows that this aim is attainable. It commends a ‘political ownership and cooperation across the policy spectrum and beyond’. The report states clearly that mastering basic competences must appear at the center of education but also at the heart of all concerned public policies.

In France, the current political commitment to focus on education and youth is a real opportunity for the country to put the problem of illiteracy back on the table and in the heart of its politics. Improving the quality of learning at primary school, middle school and high school is the right path to reduce illiteracy in the next few years. However, it is equally imperative to address the issue among adults today to enable all those affected by illiteracy to finally function self-sufficiently in their social, economic and professional day to day life.

The French National Agency fighting against illiteracy started its campaign last September 7th aiming to make the fight against illiteracy a national cause in 2013. Let’s hope that this wish comes true and materializes into some concrete measures. A better knowledge of the extent of illiteracy in France, and its causes is necessary to be able to define targeted strategies to resolve it. France took part in the latest OECD international survey, PIAAC (Programme for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies) from which results are expected in late 2013. These will tell us more about the state of adult illiteracy in the country and will without doubt inform decision-making and policies on the subject.

The persistence of illiteracy echoes that of the many inequalities that continue to corrupt societies. And yet, giving all equal opportunities in education and to acquire necessary basic skills to live a comfortable life guarantees peace and stability. Lack of prospects and unmet aspirations can lead to frustrations that too often boil over into violence and conflicts (theme of our 2011 Report – armed conflict and education) as seen in many countries in the past and today (Arab spring). This view was echoed in the 2001 Nobel Prize winner, Joseph Stiglitz’s most recent publication issued last June, The Price of Inequality.



  1. I agree with the this author that literacy is a human right to which everyone should benefit from. As a educational consultant that is charged with teaching teachers how to teach literacy, it is disheartening that illiteracy is still an epidemic all around the world. Considering literacy learning takes years to become proficient with acquiing the essential elements to be fluent readers and writers, a major commitment is required on behalf of the learner as well. How do we get illiterate individuals to commit to the time and practice it takes to be a literate individuals? Also, ith teens and adults it would seem as though an intervention on self-esteem and self-confident building strategies must be in place before, during, and after the implementation of a literacy program to recruit, retain, and sustain the love for learning to read and write. I agree that eradicating poverty and crime requires that we rethink our priorities, especially if they do not place literacy learning for all at the top of the list!

  2. Reblogged this on Page 196. and commented:
    This blog entry provides a good overview of the situation of global illiteracy. There are linked reports on the same page that are worth reading. What I wish to see though are more reports on statistics as well as programs being implemented in the poorer, more needy states in Africa and Asia. That is not to look down on the illiterate in Europe and the wealthier parts of the world. Illiteracy is illiteracy and we should not have tolerance for this on any level, anywhere.

  3. I agree. Factors linked to poverty such as unemployment, illness, and the illiteracy of parents, multiply the risk of non-schooling and the drop-out rate of a child. Leaders should focus on this because these young people will be the future of the generation and help to develop their country.

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